Culture, Religion

A season of firsts

This high holiday season was new for me in many ways.  It was my first away from my family, it was the first time I fasted without drinking water, and it was also the first time I didn’t go to services during the day on Yom Kippur.  This last one, and a related concept I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, are what I want to talk about here.
As anyone who’s done it knows, praying is not a simple concept.  It’s a big category within the religion (as in it encompasses a lot of practices and ideas), and there are a myriad of opinions about every single aspect of it.  When, how, where, and why you should do it, and so on.
Like many Jews, I’ve always had a complicated relationship to prayer.  I was raised religious, but without much connection to a synagogue.  Although very nice, the shul in our town never excited us that much (I think I’ve talked about my struggles with this a bit in a previous post), and I’ve looked for other options for a long time.
This was bound to complicate my relationship with prayer.  Even since starting to wear tzitzit three years ago, I’ve never prayed regularly, and I’ve never in my life wrapped tefilin.  A lot of this has to do with my historical connection to praying – it’s never been associated with an excitement to be Jewish for me, so I’ve never felt too enthusiastic about it.  Say what you will about willpower, but it’s hard to shake those things.

This is barely relevant, but I really felt like it needed to be seen.
That being said, do I want to try?  If something doesn’t have a lot of meaning to me, how do I make the decision as to whether or not to pursue it with the intention of giving it more meaning?  In my life thus far, I’ve never felt the need to pursue regular prayer as a component of my spiritual life, and I’ve never felt a weaker spirituality for it.  So it’s clearly not a uniformly bad thing.
Anyway, on the High Holidays, this issue is especially pressing, because the liturgy is so intense.  To be honest, I’m really not that into a lot of the language from Yom Kippur.  This is not at all to insult those who do appreciate it, but it’s just never really fully synced up with my religious philosophy.  I don’t think I’m clay in a potter’s hands.  I don’t think I need to give myself up to become a better person.  I think that everything I need in order to change for the better is already within me.
So although I went to services on Erev Yom Kippur, I didn’t go back the next day.  I slept in a bit, I went to a really excellent class with the rabbi, and I hung around and listened to good music and thought.  It was a really good day, and as I mentioned before, the first time I had fasted without drinking.  That part was made more difficult by the fact that I hadn’t decided not to drink until late the night before, so I hadn’t drunk a lot beforehand and was pretty thirsty.  I made it, though, and was glad I did.
After all this, I’ve definitely figured out more about how I feel about this type of liturgy.  Most of my problems with it tend to stem from incompatibilities – as a believer in free will, I have a hard time coming to terms with the idea that there are things humans can’t do.  I believe in an almost unlimited potential for humans to effect self-change.  It’s not easy at all in a lot of cases, and I guess that’s where a lot of people find solace or relief in G()d.  So I have a lot of respect for that.
Problems with Yom Kippur-specific prayers aside, in the past few weeks, due I suppose to the High Holidays and their associated increased-shul-time, I’ve had some interesting thoughts about the Amidah.  At least one of them was brought on by the use of Xeroxed pages of the Artscroll siddur for a Havurah minyan on Erev Yom Kippur (a weird combination).  During the Amidah, there are instructions in Artscroll that say things like “Recite this paragraph while focusing intently on G&d’s sovereignty”.  This is, in my opinion, sort of weird.  I mean, how can you make a statement like that and expect it to apply to everyone?  Before this week I would have said that the answer was that it didn’t have to because the Artscroll is a siddur associated with Orthodox Judaism – not everyone’s using it.  But now that I’ve used it in a Havurah service, I’m not so sure.  This experience makes me think about what role a siddur should have in our prayer.  Should it be nothing more than a script in Hebrew, English, and often with transliteration?  Should it also contain instructions on how one is to approach the prayers?  Most do, certainly.  Where’s the balance?
This particular experience is part of a larger shifting of focus I’ve been undergoing about the Amidah.  A little background on my experience with this prayer is useful here: I went to Schechter school up until halfway through third grade, at which point I dropped out and went to Hebrew school until seventh grade, whereupon I dropped out of that also, and had my Bar Mitzvah independent of the shul.  I learned the Amidah in day school, and then revisited it in a learning sense while preparing for my Bar Mitzvah.  The first time, I only learned the parts that are chanted out loud.  I never knew anything about the rest of it.  We would just be taught something like “You sing this bit, then you wait, and then you sing this bit.”  I didn’t have a full concept of the prayer as a whole.  This was also the case in my pre-Bar-Mitzvah studies, due only to a shortage of preparation, if nothing else (my tutor was superb).
Given this, davening the Amidah is always an interesting experience for me.  I do the first part with a lot of feeling, always adding in the matriarchs as I was taught in Schechter school (I don’t want it to sound like it was a monotonous and completely non-insightful teaching philosophy), but once I pass the Kedusha, I’m in a weird position.  I can sound out Hebrew, but I certainly don’t know enough of it to be able to understand what I’m reading, so I often read through the English text of the prayers.  This is nice, because I feel connected to the meaning of the prayers.  Except for the places where I don’t like the meaning of the prayers.  Too often I find myself reciting things I really don’t agree with.  In some other parts of services, like a Prayer for our Country, and a Prayer for Israel, I just don’t recite along.  I try to be unobtrusive to avoid stepping on other people’s enjoyment of those texts, but I really don’t feel comfortable asking for divine involvement in government.  But in the Amidah, I’m doing it silently.  There’s no reason for me to say anything I don’t really believe.  So after the Kedusha, I’ve started standing silently, usually still shuckling because it feels natural (weird how that happens), but meditating on very different concepts than what’s on the page of the siddur that I now hold closed in my hands, against my chest, on my forehead, or open, obscuring my face.  I think about politics, about human rights issues.  And usually I end up going back to the three-way bow at the end with “oseh shalom bimromav”.  Sometimes I even go back and do the actual motion of bowing many many times, almost subconsciously, between my thoughts.  To me, this is the most meaningful part of the prayer.  We’ve just spent all of this time glorifying and praising G%d’s name, and now, as a final request, in a final bow, we ask for G@d to use that power for peace.  That seems pretty powerful to me, and, based on my complicated experience with the prayer, the most worthy of repeating.
I continue to be challenged by many aspects of the Jewish liturgy.  My hope is that I’m able to continue finding ways to make these texts to relevant to me.  I also hope that I know when I shouldn’t try.  That I don’t feel tied down to those prayers, bound by their sentiments, withheld by their rituals.
Judaism retains relevance to me because of my ability to make it relevant.  In this new year, I resolve to continue that quest.
Shana tova.
Cross-posted to my blog.

42 thoughts on “A season of firsts

  1. This is hard to get my head around. You wear tzitzit but have NEVER worn tfilin. You talk about how prayer isn’t meaningful but you don’t write God’s name in full in English (I wonder, do you know the source for that?). I say this with all respect, but you seem like a traveler through Judaism and not a practicer (much less a believer) of it. It sounds like you have simply not been given a foundation in Judaism- you don’t even know where to start, other than the fact that you obviously have some deep emotional need to express yourself in what you think is “Jewish” action. I put “Jewish” in quotes because clearly some of what you follow is personal and not proscribed, and I fail to see that doing things merely because you think they’re in following Judaism (except for possibly the most philosphicaly watered down version of it) makes it so. Perhaps you should start from first principles and work your way up…
    What does Judaism ask of us? If what you think it asks of us is, well, good intentions, then I guess we part ways. I would think that Judaism (well, God actually) asks more of us than that, but that’s just me.
    Don’t you think you should learn about the Amidah, and see how it does in fact cover a whole host (though by no means complete set) of issues, and that be reciting it you are connection with the generations of Jews who have said the same (or similar) prayer? Or perhaps recognize that rabbis, who were pretty smart guys, thought that this was the way to go in best connecting with God on a regular basis? Or is everything in Judaism about what makes you tick at that particular moment?
    Or ignore me for judging. It just really seems to me that you’re very earnest but with nowhere to go. It’s no wonder you feel (or perhaps just sound) so lost.

  2. I don’t have the impression this kid is lost at all. I have the impression that he is searching, or wrestling, much like certain of our ancestors. The rabbis, “pretty smart guys” as you call them, did not intend for anyone to stop questioning and learning. That’s firmly rooted in the tradition, too.

  3. Nice post, RB. You bring up many interesting points, and I especially appreciate the formative biographical information, which helps us understand where you’re coming from.
    I’ve noticed often, recently, that many Jews write about their connection to Judaism, the relevance that Judaism has in their lives, and so on. Perhaps these phrases have different meanings in other communities and to other people, but they have become more and more problematic to me of late.
    Simply, I would define Judaism as what Jews do. Judaism is the entirety of Jewish law, custom, culture, prayer and practice.
    Defined as such, it’s strange, to me, to relate to Judaism as the object of my connection, affection or relevance. To use a well known analogy, “Judaism” is the axe in the hands of a woodcutter (that’s us). Are we trying to relate to the axe?
    To extend the analogy, take prayer, or tefillin… what does it mean to make prayer meaningful, or to make tefillin meaningful? What should our relationship be to tefillin, a tool in our hands, or to prayer, a tool in our mind and heart? Do we need to have a relationship to tools? To the extent they are useful to what we’re trying to achieve, yes, but otherwise? So, are we saying that these tools are not useful, or perhaps that we don’t know how to use these tools? That becomes a very different conversation.
    What “Judaism” is for, what these tools are for, is to connect with G-d, to have a relationship with G-d. We’re trying to relate to G-d, to understand G-d, to align our thoughts, our desires, our purpose, our actions with that of our Creator.
    In this context, what does it mean for Judaism to have relevance? What relevance does an axe have? We either use it or we set it down. When we use it, we achieve its purpose for existance. When we set it down, it is lacking relevance, it’s purpose is not actualized, until we pick it up again and go chop some more wood. That’s it. We’re not going to have a conversation with an axe. We’re not going to ask the axe to interveine on our behalf. Our relationship is with G-d, not with the axe. G-d has relevance, Judaism is a tool with a purpose.
    I think this language has so permeated the discourse that we innocently think past it, and we know what we’re trying to say when we say it. However, over time, Judaism and G-d seems to get blurred in the conversation. I think when it comes to Judaism – what Jews do in the service of G-d – that we could be more conscious, meaningful and deliberate in what we say and what we mean. Once we think through and say what we mean, it can lead to interesting questions, and no less rewarding answers.
    So, when we say that Judaism retains relevance because we make it relevant, is that really what we mean to say? What are we talking about here, Judaism or G-d? If the later, then does G-d stay relevant in our lives because we make Him relevant? That’s a very interesting statement. G-d, who brings existence into being from nothing, every instant… G-d, who infuses us with life, every moment… G-d, “in the heavens above and on the earth below there is nothing but Him”… We make Him relevant?
    Is this what we are trying to say?
    This is PRECISELY the role of a Jew, to unite spiritual (G-d) and physical (also G-d!), to draw revealed G-dliness into our world and expose G-d for what He is – He is the axe and He is the wood cutter, and he He is also the forest, and there is no difference between them. He is everything, and every distinction within this world, between us as Jews, or between physical and spritual itself is meaningless at its essence, at its root, for “in the heavens above and in the world below there is nothing BUT Him”. It is we Jews who pull back the wool rolled over the eyes of creation to not recognize its Creator.
    As we enter the New Year, let’s speak meaningfully and deliberately.
    We Jews make G-d relevant in this world.
    Shana tova.

  4. @BearsforIsrael, just because I don’t do the rituals you associate with Judaism, or the same combinations thereof, doesn’t give you the right to denounce me as a passer-by. The point of this post is precisely that I have been deriving meaning from an alternative use of the rituals.
    @Avigdor, I like the metaphor of Judaism as a tool, as the sum total of our actions as Jews. But what makes something an action of a Jew, rather than just that of a person? How do we identify actions that are “Jewish”? I also think it’s important to separate the concept of Judaism and G#d – there are lots of Jewish atheists who’d take issue with your statement that Judaism is about making G0d relevant to the world.

  5. and BTW, “clay in the potter’s hand” and the like, isn’t about giving yourself up, nor a commentary on whether you have what’s within you to change yourself – the rabbis agree with you on that. Those metaphors are about the part of the world that we don’t control – who by fire, in other words – we don’t control that.. we can only take what is within us and react to it… if we choose, as God asks us.

  6. KRG, you interpret this very differently than I. I see the “who by fire”, etc. section as asking to be let in on divine knowledge. In other words, G•d is now determining or foreseeing who will die by what means, and we are asking for the privilege of that knowledge.
    And to me, the “clay in the potter’s hand” bit is exactly about giving oneself up. I mean, that’s the point of the metaphor, that clay has no control over how the potter shapes it.

  7. Clay in the potter’s hands?
    Which siddur are you guys using?
    there are lots of Jewish atheists who’d take issue with your statement that Judaism is about making G-d relevant to the world
    I don’t know what Judaism is about; I haven’t learned everything. Jews are about making G-d relevant (revealed) in the world. As for Jewish atheists, I also don’t believe in the god that they don’t believe in, but that’s another discussion.

  8. The “clay in the potter’s hands” quotation refers to a piyut (I know it from the Silverman Mahzor, but I assume quite a few others include it) that in turn is making reference to Jeremiah 18:6.

  9. Avigdor, your statement that Jews are about making G-d relevant in the world is exactly what I’m taking issue with. That’s not a universal truth. Lots of Jews are doing very different things with their Jewishness.

  10. Lots of Jews are doing very different things with their Jewishness.
    I agree, but again, that’s precisely what I wrote about earlier. Judaism. Jewishness. Jews connect with G-d, that’s just what we do. How we do it is another matter, but we always find a way. Some are very creative at it, others merely think they are creative, and others still follow the well worn path their families and mentors showed them.
    Really, I don’t want to distract from my main point. Jew. G-d. Draw a line between them. You may call the line whatever you wish, but all it does is connect one with the other.
    I’m not in the business of negating others self-narrative, but I would like to have a conversation with someone who thinks that connecting with G-d is not what Jews do, however they do it. A universal truth? Let’s have that conversation. Show me how it isn’t.

  11. I think in order to have that conversion, we might need to define some terms, such as “G-d.” I don’t think you two are talking about the same thing when you each talk about God.

  12. RB, you say that you have “been deriving meaning from an alternative use of the rituals.” What does that mean? Does this mean that you recognize that these rituals have a purpose that you are trying to subvert? It seems that your Judaism is entirely relativistic, even along the whole “is there a God” conversation. What I meant to point out, perhaps badly, is that it seems that you are taking some rituals out of context, perhaps unknowingly, and that it is then no wonder that you are lost within them.
    I don’t doubt the philosophical consistency of your arguments. Indeed, I think they are well thought out. But Judaism is a religion (or way of life, means to serve God, really choose your phrase) and as such defines a path. To dilute what that path is past a certain point leaves you no path at all. Which, again, may be consistent, but to what end?
    Shoshie, indeed, every Jew should always, always search. But, bluntly put, not all searches are created equal. For example, learning the Torah without ever looking at Rashi, Rambam, Leibowitz etc is indeed learning about Judaism, but misses important context. We should always encourage searching, but there’s no harm in trying to guide it along a productive (within a Jewish context) path.

  13. RB: Granted we’re talking about interpretation, but I think that Who By Fire isn’t a request – it’s an acknowledgment that it’s not in our hands (and in fact, that we won’t know the future).
    I think it’s important to understand how the rabbis saw the themes of this period: the days of awe are days not so much of individual repentance (Which one can, after all, do any time) but of communal repentance, thus while much of the tefilah seems to talk about individual acts of teshuva, tefilah and tzedakah, in fact, what we’re really doing asa whole is acknowledging God’s sovereignty (Rosh Hashanah) as the one who judges nations and their acts collectively and Yom Kippur, as the day of judgment of individuals, yes, but more to the point that the fate of the nation as a whole rests on what individuals do, and that our fates do not rest in our own hands, but in God’s judgment of the outcome of our repentance. Certainly we do repent for ourselves as individuals, but remember the end of the season isn’t Yom Kippur, it’s Sukkot, at the end of which, we discover whether God will “send the rains” to the nation – not to the individual. LIke the Shema’s second paragraph. NOW, I choose to take the expressions here as more metaphoric also, but in doing so, interweaving the themes of the season are to acknowledge tht God is the potter, the glassblower,e tc – that is that God forms us and sends us out into the world, and the world bumps into us, and we choose how to react to it… we may just be glass jars, or clay pots, but that’s just what we’re made of… our ultimate fate is not in our own hands, but God’s – but we still have control of our lives in how we act between here and there; at the same time, we acknowledge that there is only one sovereign – and it’s not a human – in a way, this is a way of reminding people that it is not other people who rule us – unless we choose to make ourselves slaves- but God and so we don’t need to bow down to any but God.

  14. Bears, I think you’re also missing some context on what community RB grew up in, which by all accounts is religiously Jewishly inspired. His journey and experimentation with ritual occurs within a very Jewishly literate crowd. But perhaps RB had reason for leaving that out.

  15. @Avigdor, you’re still saying the same thing. That Jews connect with G^d. That it’s “just what we do”. That’s what you do, and that’s your personal choice. There are Jews who do not connect with, wish to connect with, or have any belief in God. I have met them in the past, know them currently, and expect to meet many more in my life. It’s a valuable perspective, and as such I will not disservice them by denying its existence or legitimacy.
    @BearsforIsrael, I absolutely recognize that the intended purpose of many Jewish rituals is not the same as what I do with it. I wouldn’t call that “subversion”, though, I’d call it “personalization”. It’s also very misleading to say that Judaism defines “a path”. A Jew defines their own path within Judaism. The concept of being a Jew doesn’t mandate a single, “true” path.
    When you say that you want to guide learning along a “productive” path, you should recognize that that’s your own belief of what’s productive. I happen to agree with you about text study in particular – I regularly attend text and learning sessions, and am taking a discussion-based Talmud class this semester. But that’s not because I feel like I’m obligated to by Judaism. It’s because I value it. And if someone else didn’t, it would obviously be their right not to study such things. You or I would have no basis for expecting or requiring them to. Certainly we could discuss that choice with them, but it’s ultimately theirs to make.
    @KRG, I appreciate your point about Sukkot, and the differences between nations and individuals. It’s a very interesting angle that I hadn’t considered. But I do disagree with you when you say that “our ultimate fate is not in our own hands”. I understand that that’s your opinion, but I think that believing in fate negates the concept of free will. If you believe that you’re going to end up in a specified place no matter what you do, then your actions don’t really have any ultimate consequences. That implication in the liturgy is the one that troubles me. It seems to be a conflict. Yes, we’re taking it upon ourselves to repent and be better people, but we’re doing that in the context of asking that the repentance favorably affect a fate we’re claiming to have no control over.

  16. RB, this has nothing to do with who has a right to do what. You seem so much more into external (how my worldview affects others) than internal (how my worldview affects me). I think that that is putting the cart before the horse… but that’s a bit off the point I’m trying to make. Of course a Jew can find any means of trying to make something meaningful to itself, but you must realize that any concept must have some kind of conceptual border otherwise it’s not a concept at all. So ask yourself this, and go for a ballpark response: What is Judaism? And how is it different from any other ideology or religion?
    If the first question doesn’t help you (sufficiently) with the second, I would argue that your first definition, while satisfying, isn’t a definition per se because it does not define.
    You can call it “personalization”, you can call it whatever you want. But if you take something that has a purpose and use it no longer to its purpose, then what do you have? Surely it’s inspired by Judaism, and likely inspires you, but… can you in all honestly call that Judaism when what you have chosen has only tangential relationship to Judaism and everything to do solely with your personal, independent of Judaism (i.e. secular) beliefs?
    KFJ- first of all, I don’t know what “religiously Jewishly inspired” even means. Anyone, Jewish or not, can by inspired by religious Judaism- it depends on the nature of that inspiration. you talk about him being within literate crowds- you seem to think that RB can get Judaism by osmosis.

  17. BearsForIsrael – do you believe in the idea of Judaism as a civilization? Because that’s a big difference between Judaism and other religions/ideologies, which also makes space within Judaism for those who reject the religious elements of Judaism.

  18. Bears, when you say “conceptual border”, you’re dangerously close to defining what does and doesn’t constitute Judaism. You can do that for yourself, but not for others. And yes, I’m concerned with how my viewpoint affects others. I live with others. I’m a person.
    When you say that I’m no longer using something to its purpose, you’re implying that it has an innate purpose. I’m disagreeing. I’m fully aware of the purposes these rituals have had in the past, but I don’t assign any kind of mythical significance to those purposes. I find my own purposes that are relevant to me.

    can you in all honestly call that Judaism when what you have chosen has only tangential relationship to Judaism and everything to do solely with your personal, independent of Judaism (i.e. secular) beliefs?

    Yes. Yes, I can, as tangential as you may deem it under your own beliefs. It obviously has only to do with my personal beliefs. I’m believing it, so it’s a personal belief.

  19. dlevy- The short answer (and there is a much longer answer) is that no, I don’t believe in Judaism as a civilization. The beginning of the long answer is that I don’t believe that a group of Jews is necessarily a Jewish group.
    RB- I can see that you are a deep relativist- I doubt you believe in universal truth, and even more so you refuse to believe that some truths are better than others (not the best, just better). Which is fine it’s just… deeply unsatisfying. I’m not looking to define anything for others, or for you. I just question the ultimate value of such a path. If it works for you, knock yourself out. The reason I started in on this, and I haven’t posted on Jewschool in ages, is that you seem so earnest and yet lost, and I’ve been trying (and failing?) at giving some perspective.
    In short, in life people have differences. It’s a bit odd to think that the world cares what one thinks in his heart of hearts. Don’t be afraid to judge- just make sure you don’t impose that judgement on others… it’s the actions you have to watch out for.
    And in terms of the whole defining thing – I haven’t even attempted a definition of Judaism, nor would I want to. Though I think it’s interesting that you are wary of the notion of anything having an actual definition. Again, I don’t see how that’s anything other than deeply unsatisfying on a personal level.

  20. RB, I think dlevy is right. We may not be on the same page on how we define G-d.
    As for BFI… I read something on dkos several years back by a prominent progressive that stuck with me. I don’t have the exact quote, but it went something like, “you can’t believe that truth can come from outside yourself and be progressive”. I don’t know whether some here stand by this statement. I think back on the many mistakes I’ve made in my life, some terrible choices which I made believing they were right at the time, and I can’t but reject this statement outright.
    There is something to be said for acknowledging our own human limitations and accepting the possibility that, while absolute truth exists, what we perceive as truth, and what we insist is truth at any given point, may not be so. I think this is self-evident by how our perception of truth changes over the course of our lives.
    By the definition I believe is widely accepted, and which I accept, G-d represents the most fundamental, absolute truth there is, because nothing exists but Him. Judaism, as a system of tools for Jews to connect and relate with G-d, is founded on and reflects the idea of G-d representing, or existing as, absolute truth.
    So, when someone like me, who knows myself to be fallible, attempts to connect with G-d, it is with the knowledge that I have a limit to my capacity, to my abilities as a human being, and a desire to receive something from outside myself – something good, pure and true – which I can not on my own achieve.
    There is a Chassidic saying, “the more you, the less Him”. You can’t fill a cup already full of self, of ego, of hubris and arrogance. A little humility goes a long way. Some of us have had the benefit of humility imposed on us (i.e. beaten into us) through circumstances in life. There are only so many times a person can claim to be perfect, and experience a disaster that breaks their life into pieces.
    One can’t help but think, after such an event… Maybe I’m not perfect after all. Maybe I’m not always right. Maybe I don’t know everything. I still believe in absolute truth, in purity and perfect goodness, but it is clear I am not its source. If it is not inside of me, then it is outside of me, and the journey begins.
    This journey changes everything. It changes the questions you ask. Instead of asking how to make prayer meaningful to “me” and the things “I” believe in, one starts asking, the meaning is already in the prayer, how do I learn how to discover and appreciate it. Instead of asking, what role does G-d serve in my life, one asks, what purpose do I serve in a world that G-d created?
    Instead of wondering whether G-d exists, and struggling with this problem, today I wonder whether I exist, under what conditions and for what purpose I exist, and struggle with this problem.

  21. We can have definitions of Judaism and ultimate truths without being absolutely sure that we’ve got it 100% correct to the points that we should go around evangelizing others who think differently. There is a difference between having a truth and pushing a truth.
    Bears, as I read it, has his truth and is ready to tell others that theirs is wrong. RB, it seems, has his truth and is curious what others think about it.

  22. Incidentally, I’m currently (finally) reading Surprised by God, Rabbi (and Jewschool editor) Danya Ruttenberg’s memoir of how she became religious, and a lot of the themes in this discussion resonate with a lot of the themes in the book. She talks about the pros and cons of the Amidah, of tefillin and more in ways that keep making me want to copy and paste passages into this comment box. RB and others, if you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend it.

  23. BFI, I appreciate the perspective. But I don’t think I’m lost. Believing something for the sake of believing is not satisfying to me either. I’d rather continue to question as long as I see the need.
    I don’t at all find it deeply unsatisfying not to believe in universal truth. If I believe something myself, that’s enough to make it relevant and useful to me, and for it to be something to live by.

  24. Avigdor, I have a deep respect for your belief in a universal truth. And I have no intention of trying to persuade you that it doesn’t exist or isn’t worth looking for or getting closer to.
    I completely agree with you that we should acknowledge our own limitations. To me, that means admitting that any belief of truth exists within those limitations. So if I personally think I’ve found a universal truth, I’m likely to chalk up that belief of its universality to my inability to truly comprehend something outside of my own definition. And I have never felt comfortable accepting as true something I can’t comprehend.
    @KJF, I agree that the likelihood of our actually having the truth 100% right is small enough that we shouldn’t act to force others to abide by what we perceive it to be.

  25. Ack, one more thing. I’m very uncomfortable with the notion of universal truth, even though I think I shouldn’t be. I’m far more comfortable believing some truths are more right than others.
    KFG- no way have I found my truth. I can’t imagine I ever will. I’m not even saying that RB is wrong. If it works for him, good times. From reading this Jewschool post it appeared that it wasn’t working for him and so I commented- as you point out, he wants to see what others think and I tried to oblige. That’s all.
    Avigdor- I think we disagree about outlook a bit, but I love the way you put things. Sh’koach.

  26. I have never felt comfortable accepting as true something I can’t comprehend.
    That I can understand. I don’t have much time right now, so I’ll just ask you two questions.
    1) Do you apply this standard to other aspects in your life? Do you understand every detail of the physical, chemical and mechanical processes that are activated by turning on your car’s ignition? In physics we encounter this all the time. We make use of subatomic particles that have never been seen, and which we only believe to exist based on mathematical models. We accept and make use of gravity, but have no real comprehension of why it exists.
    2) Why is it important to feel comfortable with a truth, in order to accept it?

  27. Good questions Avigdor.
    1) I don’t understand every single detail of those processes. But I know what they do, and have a basic knowledge of their components, having been blessed with superb science and math teachers. I find there to be a spectrum – there are absolutely some things I understand better than others. There’s a point at which I feel that I am comfortable enough with a concept to accept it as true based on what I know. From my experience in classrooms, this is true of a lot of students – we’ll question a teacher almost out of instinct until we really believe what they’re saying to be true.
    Also, knowing that something is comprehendible, even if I don’t have full knowledge of it, is often enough to make me comfortable accepting it. So having a relationship with Gød based around admitting the inability to comprehend Gªd’s power doesn’t seem functional to me.
    2) This is obviously going to differ greatly from person to person. Arguably, for me, this comes from a desire to be in control all the time. I’ve never liked situations in which I had a demonstrated lack of control over the outcome, so it makes sense that I would similarly avoid them in a religious context, even if the definition of what constitutes control is a bit murkier.
    What about you? Do you feel comfortable accepting things you don’t understand?

  28. RB, I don’t know what you do for a living, or if you’re still in school or have other arrangements. I can tell you that the more specialized one becomes, in any science, the fewer teachers/mentors become available for one to question, to the point that there simply isn’t anyone to ask who knows the truth. At that point, when there are only a handful of people in the entire world who can even follow your notes, you simply have to make educated guesses based on probability and test your assumptions, continually.
    To use an earlier point, we have no idea if gravity will work tomorrow. No physicist in his right mind would give you such a guarantee. We don’t know why it works or where it came from. All we understand are the effects it appears to have on other objects. If the effects of gravity change radically tomorrow, it will be shocking to us, but it may be perfectly within gravity’s laws.
    Since the Enlightenment, but more so after the Industrial Revolution, most of humanity is increasingly certain about what they know, or think they know, about how the world works – and that includes academia. However, science is not based on certainty, it is based on probabilities derived from observations of the known. That it, and we’ve done wonderful things with the limited information and understanding that we have, but really that’s it. Nevertheless, we take the information we have, develop technologies, build civilizations and so on.
    No one can prove to you the existence of G-d. If you study some Jewish mysticism, you will understand why – the physical world was created, by design, to conceal G-d. In every other spiritual plane, it is completely obvious that G-d exists the way it is completely obvious to us that gravity exists, and even more so. Only here, in the world of action (called Assiya), is the contraction of divine energy and concealment so great that a creation (that’s us) can deny the existence of its Creator (that’s G-d).
    Why is G-d so cruel that He hides himself? Is this some sick game? Wouldn’t our lives be easier if G-d simply performed a few miracles to prove his existence? That way, with proof in our hands, we would all become devout Jews and do what G-d wants. There would be no more confusion. After all, this is how the angels operate. They perceive G-dliness in actuality, all the time, and thus never stray from G-d’s instructions.
    Ah! Read a little more Jewish mysticism, and you’ll understand the need for contraction and concealment. G-d created the world because he desired a home in the lower realms (that’s us). It’s a paradox, a love story: a crass, hard, physical world, a world of limitation, the antithesis of spirituality, which rejects the very notion of G-d, being transformed to reveal the G-dliness within. Through our physical actions, which transcend physicality, which reach through the fog of concealment, we uncover the spirituality within the physical world, uniting spiritual and physical, solving the greatest paradox, and completing the purpose of creation.
    Being a control freak, I know exactly what you mean regarding staying in control. There is very little I can add, except that losing control is not an uncomfortable prospect for me, it is a terrifying one. The world is crazy, scarry, dangerous. Yet, no matter how much control we impose on it, the world fights back until we lose control, and the world always wins.
    Do we really have control to begin with? What would it take for someone’s world to turn upside down? A death in the family (G-d Forbid!)? The loss of employment (G-d Forbid!)? A natural disaster (G-d Forbid!)? How about something less ghastly – a skin rash that drives one insane? Forgetting to fill up the gas tank and getting stuck on the road in rush hour?
    What would it take for all the careful planning, for all that “control” to vaporize into disaster, chaos and tears? In my experience, very little. Chassidus teaches that we have no control over the world. At best, at best, we can learn to control ourselves; we can be mindful in how we respond to the world through our faculties of thought, speech and action. Yiddishkeit is nothing if not absolutely practical.
    There is so much beauty to appreciate in the Jewish service of G-d. There is so much to learn, understand, and so many things for us to do in this physical world. This knowledge, these actions themselves transform a person, how you approach the world, how you approach the monotony, stress, setbacks and joys of every day life. I am ashamed of how little I know, and how little I’ve done, and even that I can’t express in words. I truly hope that you will give yourself an opportunity to discover the beauty and meaning in the parts of our tradition, our spiritual inheritance that you have yet to explore.

  29. I know I owe an answer on the Jewish civilization thing- but… I have to find interest in that perhaps all three of us- Avigdor, RB, and I- are scientists… Or perhaps I presume too much.

  30. If your struggling for a universal truth, and axis with which to center your individual “Judaisms” upon, Hillel said:
    “What is hateful to you, do not do to others.”
    It really really really is the universal truth within religion. As Hillel said:
    “That is the whole Torah; the rest is the commentary; go and learn.”
    @BFI – “What is hateful to you, do not do to others…”
    @Avigdor – “…That is the whole Torah; the rest is the commentary”
    @RB – “…go and learn.”

  31. Avigdor, I don’t want this to turn into a “G8d v. science” debate. But it’s highly misleading for you to say that “we have no idea if gravity will work tomorrow.” Yes, it’s true that no physicist would “guarantee” it. They wouldn’t say “We have total scientific certainty that this phenomenon will occur in a certain manner,” because that’s not true – we don’t have such certainty. But I’d bet my life and just about anything else on it, and I think most physicists would too.
    Don’t confuse the normal practice of scientific skepticism with the practice of denial. You’re right that science is based on probability rather than certainty. But issuing a blanket statement like that without a further explanation is something that I associate, in the realm of science, with climate change deniers. Do we know for sure how gravity works? No. Do we have any reason at all based on any evidence, historical or present, to assume it works differently than we observe? No. And so far, relying on gravity’s functionality has yielded valid results in other areas. A scientist would say that it’s safe to treat gravity as a given.
    Again, I have an enormous amount of respect for what you’ve conveyed as your belief in Gßd’s role in the world and your life. So don’t take any of this as an affront to your beliefs or the advice you’re giving, which I appreciate very much.
    @Saki, I’m not struggling for universal truth because I don’t believe in it. I’m struggling for personal truth. And I’d take issue with the idea that the entire religion is based on that concept. I certainly identify it, but there are plenty of sources that disagree, at least when applied to any kind of modern context.

  32. “I’m not struggling for universal truth because I don’t believe in it…”
    why would you not want to find a truth we can all agree on?
    “I’m struggling for personal truth.”
    We all struggle for the truth. You want to personally struggle for it, instead of having it made to order. Me too. But are you looking for a personal truth, or an original truth? You may find that when your search is honest your findings may be roughly the same as those who have stood before you.
    “…And I’d take issue with the idea that the entire religion is based on that concept”
    you take issue with the idea that religion is based on that concept of compassion? what issue do you take and why?
    ” I certainly identify it, but there are plenty of sources that disagree, at least when applied to any kind of modern context.” I don’t understand, what sources? in what context? your talking personal truth on one hand and relying on sources on the other? modern context? huh?

  33. “why would you not want to find a truth we can all agree on?”
    Because I don’t believe it exists. And if it does, I have no right to try to convince someone that my truth should be theirs as well.
    “You may find that when your search is honest your findings may be roughly the same as those who have stood before you.”
    Absolutely. I’m not being different for the sake of being different, or avoiding conclusions that other people have drawn before.. I’m just not assuming that they’re right for me.
    As to the compassion thing, I think it’s idealistic to say that that’s what the whole religion is about. The more I learn about it, the more I identify ways in which components of judaism were constructed for no reason other than to be self-sustaining. In lots of ways, the development of Judaism (or any religion) is insular, self-serving, and uninterested in the rest of the world. I don’t let those things get in the way of having a meaningful connection to the parts of the religion I love and feel very strongly about, but I certainly won’t sugarcoat the rest and pretend it’s not there.
    Searching for personal truth and belief absolutely does not invalidate the use of historical and external sources. This is why I engage in Jewish learning and expose myself to other points of view. It’s impossible to learn if you only ever look inward.

  34. RB,
    …”Because I don’t believe it exists.”
    Why do you believe there is no truth we could agree on?
    “…And if it does, I have no right to try to convince someone that my truth should be theirs as well.”
    why do you believe you have no right to try to reach a consensus?
    I’m jewish, if that’s what you mean by background. I don’t self label more than that, and I reserve the right to ALWAYS change my mind.

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